The Rise and Fall of Communism Paperback – 1 Apr 2010
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"Superb...a hugely readable book" (Simon Heffer Daily Telegraph)
"At its peak, communism controlled one third of the human race...Brown's scholarly, well-paced and critical overview contributes brilliantly to a reasoned reassessment" (Sunday Times)
"To understand one of the central stories of the 20th century - read Brown's book" (Independent)
"The breadth of his scholarship and research is hugely impressive... Brown offers clever insights, as well as some fascinating new revelations" (Evening Standard)
"This book is the crowning achievement of Archie Brown's career... This volume will remain a definitive study of communism... Thank you, Archie Brown" (Oleg Gordievsky Literary Review)
The definitive and groundbreaking account of the revolutionary ideology that changed the modern world.See all Product description
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The book starts with a brief survey of the utopian antecedents of Communism before moving to cover the Bolshevik revolution, Stalin's forced industrialisation of the Soviet Union, the Chinese revolution, through to the gradual fracturing and ultimate collapse of the Soviet Union and its protégé regimes in Eastern Europe in the late 80s/early 90s. It treats developments in Soviet Union and Eastern Europe the best, China satisfactorily but is less comprehensive about Communism in the developing world. Vietnam, Cuba and Laos are barely covered. However I think that this emphasis is valid as a book that charts the decline of Communism as a political movement should devote space to the very places where it started and where it ended.
Communism was not monolithic. There were substantial differences in the operations of the various Communist regimes. They even, as in the case of the case of Vietnam and Kampuchea, fought one another. Indeed, the Soviet Union and China fought fatal clashes on their border in the Far East in the late 1960s, which nearly came to all out war. However, all communist regimes were united by the following features:
1. The monopoly political power of the ruling party.
2. Democratic centralism. Decisions are theoretically debated democratically at the centre of power but once taken enforced with great discipline and rigidity within the party and throughout the society at large
3. Non-capitalist ownership of means of production.
4. Dominance of a command economy: decisions as to what should be produced and prices for goods and services were determined bureaucratically.
5. Ideological justification: the declared aim of `building Communism' in the sense of moving to an end-point of a non-hierarchical, classless society and the withering away of the state. Despite all the suffering and sacrifice, is to be found in the achievement of this end-state.
Once the last aim had been abandoned, Communist regimes were left to seek legitimacy in improving living standards. In this contest with the west, they were found wanting. Once they couldn't provide that, the game was up. In Eastern Europe, the game would have been up long before 1989.
Today arguably only North Korea and Cuba meet all five criteria (however it's doubtful whether the ruling elites in either country truly believe that the final withering away of the state will ever be attained). China meets the definition in respect of 1 and 2 but Brown does not count it as communist in this sense in that 3, 4 and 5 have all been long-abandoned. This can be debated but it is clear that China today is remote from the classical Communist model as described above.
Otherwise Brown's book is rich in insight into the mechanics of communist power. Communist regimes did not rule simply by coercion. They provided incentives. For instance Stalin's Great Terror in the 1930s (or `Great Purges' as some euphemistically call it) disproportionately targeted professionals, providing opportunities for those at the bottom of the social scale to move into the posts vacated by their former occupants. But the Soviet Union did not rely on terror alone (especially after Stalin) and for a while was able to sustain generous welfare benefits to reconcile its subjects to one-party rule.
Paradoxically then the party of the working-class legitimised itself partially by providing an opportunity for social advancement to the middle class. Mao's Cultural Revolution - intended to sweep away all forms of hierarchy and authority (except Mao's) - succeeded in weakening entrenched bureaucratic interests to the extent that they were too enfeebled to resist the reintroduction of capitalism in the 1980s and 1990s. This in contrast to Khrushchev, whose attempts at reform in the 1950s were stymied by a combined party-bureaucracy.
As far as the end of Communism is concerned, Brown credits the largely peaceful transition in Eastern Europe to Gorbachev - not Ronald Reagan, not Solidarity in Poland and not Pope John Paul II. Solidarity was truly a workers' movement (the same could not be said for the Bolsheviks) but despite overwhelming popular support, it was not able to prevail until the Soviet military guarantee to Poland was withdrawn. Arms spending produced huge strains on the Soviet economy, which sought military parity with the United States but with an economy a quarter of the size. But the system could have staggered on regardless, and reform was not inevitable. There were plenty of ideological stalwarts in the Soviet Union willing to swim against the tide but it doesn't follow that the tide was strong enough to sweep reactionary, recalcitrant elements away.
Brown rejects the economic determinist case that the decrepit, ossified state of the Soviet economy, and the scale of opposition to it in Eastern Europe in the mid-80s, necessitated reform. Gorbachev enjoyed solid popularity in the Soviet Union until 1989, when he lost control of the reform process. Political reform preceded economic reform: the fate of the Soviet Union was not lost on the Chinese who have proceeded in a fashion diametrically opposed to the Soviet approach in the 1980s.
The persistence of a Leninist-inspired form of political organisation in China and a renewed authoritarian creep in post-Soviet Russia may serve to caution those such as Brown who have pronounced Communism dead but I don't think so. Communism as a utopian movement is finished. Russia, where the transition to capitalism was a disaster, did not see a revival of a rump Communist party. What we see now in Russia and China are hybrid-authoritarian regimes that have long-abandoned any pretence that the state will wither away and will lead all humankind to a radiant future with no police, courts, prisons.
There are tons of facts in Archie Browns book and also funny asides, such as Brown's own experiences with real commies and other delude nut-jobs and the book got exciting towards the end with Boris Yeltsin's dismantling, rather than collapse, of the Soviet empire.
Though the later parts were entertaining, I must say, the first few chapters on the history of utopian ideas, Karl Marx, and the general 'coming of god on earth' atmosphere were a bit rushed (only around 30 pages). No harm done there, as it's only a one volume book. However, academics or students wanting to research this period can get more information by nipping into any library and picking a book on the actual period. I thought Brown's version read like a synopsis of planned chapters.
Also, the exciting revolutionary period he is covering only took place about three generations ago and so it would be worth reading the actual books from the period to get a flavour of this excitement. Archie Brown, wisely, isn't a true believer. Eric Hobsbawn, on the other hand, was and as well as being a fantastic writer, red Eric has a fantasticly entertaining eye for imagery and can write about the menace of the 5 foot 2 inches dead body of Josef Stalin that terrorized so many millions when alive. This image stayed with me for many sleepless nights. Unfortunately Archie Brown isn"t as good a writer and so he can't make his characters come alive and so the uninformed reader is left wondering, just who the charismatic one in the story was? Also, why did Karl Marx have such a pull on intellectuals of the period? Brown doesn't make it clear. John Gray's Black Mass is the book on illusion of optimistic ideas.
The writer Francis Wheen reckons that Karl Marx, rather than the Beatles, was bigger than Jesus. If you doubt this or if you want to get an idea of how true this was in the 20th century, then read Isaiah Berlin's biography of Karl Marx. It was written around the 1940's, at the height of Communist power, and it's the most penetrating book on 18th and 19th century political philosophy you will ever read (Isaiah Berlin was a genius and a great prose man himself and, also, he was the big man of liberty, so if he can get swept away by the rush then thats saying something); I read Berlin's biography of Marx in college, before I even heard of Karl Marx and Isaiah Berlin, and the idea of history as God and Marx its prophet, was solidly ingrained in my mind. Isaiah Berlin just falls over himself in heaping praise on the genius of Karl Marx, just as today we heap praise on the genius of Albert Einstein. So this gives a flavour of the mood at the time.
(And this is even weirder when we realize that Isaiah Berlin is known today as the grand guru of freedom. Tony Blair even wrote Isaiah Berlin a letter, asking his permission for socialism. Just as the 19th century Russian thinker Vera Zasulich wrote Karl Marx a letter asking his permission for communism. Unfortunately Isaiah Berlin was just dead and so couldn't reply; but Karl Marx said, sure, just go ahead).
Berlin's book is only around 200 pages, so if you are serious in researching this period in history, then you will be doing yourself a big favour by reading that book first, rather than the 40 odd cramped pages in here.
Also, a nerdy point but I think it's worth making. Brown keeps accusing Marx of 'wishful thinking' in predicting the coming of communism and all that. But the real reason that Marx was wrong is the paradox of induction, made famous by Sir Karl Popper in his Poverty of Historicism. So Popper's your man for the explanation or you can read the more recent Fooled by Randomness by Nassim Taleb, which is also about the problem of induction.
One other pretensiously over-long and somewhat heretical question on the soundness of communism (or I may just need to get out more). Archie Brown rightly lists the crimes of Communism and he is right in pointing out the superiority of our capitalist civilisation over the commie experiment.
We can all agree that communism in the 20th century was a nightmare, and that the big dictators deserve to burn in hell or, if the Hindu's are correct, come back as worms for the dogs and birds. But, if you read this book with an objective head, rather than an academic, then you may see that communism as an ideology did not cause the mass starvation of the 20's and 30,s! The real cause, though Archie Brown only brings this up on page 221,; the real cause of the famine was the Marxist-Lenninist crackpot fear of real science, made real in the adsurd form of a self-taught geneticist called Trofim Lysenko. Lysenko used cod Lamarckian theory to 'grow' crops for the Russian bear; thus starving millions in the process. Lysenko's sugar daddy, of course, was Joseph Stalin. Stalin stood by as Lysenko turned the Soviet Union into a desolate wasteland; this seems to have pleased comrade Stalin! Stalin, you see, preferred Lysenko's pseudo scientific bilge, because; well look at it this way; in Lamarkian theory you violently beat the crops to strengthen the next harvest (didn't work), so Stalin wanted to beat his people like metal, on the anvils of the communist/Lamarchian ideology, to strengthen them for the next generation! ("Lamark's ideas were progressive and Darwinism is pessimistic like proper science should be" - Steve Jones). This is why Stalin liked Lysenko's ideas; so much so that he killed all the scientists who spoke out and, unbelievably, Lysenko's ideas still ruled well into the 1950's. Mainstream history holds that it was Lysenko's experimenting with crops which led to zero crop rotation, but the idea that communism equals famine has become an a-priori truth. So today we all 'know' that famine is in the bones of communism; even though the annals point to the use of cod Lysenko 'science', rather than real science to power communism, as being the catalyst which tore at the Russian belly. So the logical reasoning is this; no Trofim Lysenko equals zero famine, and, here is the heretical bit, if there was no famine (that is, if the Soviets used real science), then communism may not have been so discredited at the starting line? I really do need to get out more! You think? Also we can ask what if they didn't invent, erm, dictators! But that's just wishful thinking. Archie Brown doesn't mention Stalin's embrace of crackpot ideas over real science and other ridiculous communist terrors that killed off human nature.
Here is another funny thing I have just noticed in the pictures section. The picture sections are the routine pictures starting with Marx and Engels all the way up to the 1980's. Now the photographs covering the late 20th century are full of grey old men in suits. You see grey old men everywhere these days. During the World Cup I saw a grey old FIFA guy shaking David Beckham's hand. And the people running the International Olympics Committee are all grey men wearing the same suits. If you Google the European parliament, hey, there they are, grey old bureaucrats. Or Google the American congress or the Supreme Court and there they are again, old men in suits. This is probably a good reason why communism became pants!
Personally, I prefer economic and social histories more than political or institutional ones, and this book is mainly about the latter, but that makes sense considering the top down, authoritarian regimes described. Perhaps it's a small weakness that the economy parts are a bit sparse and also that the author's speciality shows when he talks about his topic (the USSR), the parts on other communist countries go a little bit too quickly. There is some repetition (especially in conclusions, summaries and in the last chapter), perhaps it's not necessary as the history is very well written and allows the reader to make up his own mind. Details like the above are probably inevitable in such an ambitious, wide-ranging book, I couldn't put them down as faults.
About the usual question (in such books) of perceived bias, I can't imagine many people being put off, the author casts a critical eye on communism and explains why elements of totalitarianism/authoritarianism go together with communism. But even if the reader disagrees, the point is not unpleasantly forced, the book focuses on story, not rants or polemics. There's no obvious right wing bias either, the occasional successes of communism are also explained and communism is contrasted to democratic socialism and people on the left like Orwell or Bevan who I thought are portrayed in a flattering light.
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